Forty Acre Lane, Harting, 2021: first post-excavation bulletin

A Neolithic enclosure – or not?

We reached the end of the excavations in October still believing we were digging the site of a Neolithic ‘long enclosure’. Roy Loveday, the expert on such monuments, had told us that it was the broadest example he has come across but he was nevertheless happy to accept as a variant within that class. However, examination of the cleaned finds from critical (i.e. the lowest) contexts in the two ditch cuttings (Trenches 2 & 4) has forced a re-think. The pot sherds at those low levels look Early Bronze Age, but all are small and might be open to the argument that they have intruded from higher levels. More definitive is the fact that the character of the flintwork seen higher in the ditch in the stable soil horizons remains the same right to the bottom. All of it conforms to the ‘Bronze Age’ tradition in which flintworking skills had declined from their former glory. Until recently this decline was thought to be a feature of the Middle Bronze Age onwards, but newer evidence (including from the Heath excavations) suggests it began during the barrow building period of the EBA. It is uncertain as yet how much overlap there would have been with the more skilful flintworking needed to make barbed and tanged arrowheads, but in the context of Forty Acre Lane the key point is that the large ditch is very unlikely to have been dug before the later part of the EBA. We look forward to radiocarbon dating to confirm this re-dating.

This leads on to another question since long oval enclosures are not known in this period – well, that is to say, not known as simple enclosures. However, there is a small series of such features surrounding multiple contiguous round barrows. This is a rare variation of the common practice of encircling an individual mound with a ditch. This is what we seem to have at Forty Acre Lane, support coming from a slightly elevated ground surface coinciding with the area of the enclosure (in one location up to c. 0.4m higher than expected). The best explanation for this elevation is that a row of three or four barrows stood there for a long period during early cultivation and thus protected the underlying surface. Meanwhile the surrounding land was subject to the downslope movement of the thin soil cover and the steady attrition of the underlying chalk. Even whilst they were being denuded, the barrow mounds would have prevented that attrition until the point at which they were virtually levelled. The broad hollow flanking the main ditch in Trench 4 makes sense now as a negative lynchet cutting down into the chalk around a mound surviving to the north; the hollow’s curved northern edge seen in the resistivity plot indicates the edge of the mound at that time, probably during the Romano-British period.

The Trench 2 pit

There has also been some re-thinking in relation to the pit immediately north of the ditch in Trench 2. The finds in the upper layers include Romano-British pottery and these layers clearly ‘cut’ a layer running across the top of the ditch. It was initially assumed that the whole pit fill was of much the same date. However, of the pottery in the lower layers none is R-B, so a later prehistoric origin is possible. Partway up the pit fill was a soil horizon which could have stood open and stable for quite a time before being buried under ploughsoil. This stratigraphy mirrors what can be seen in the upper ditch fill. The R-B material may then merely have filled the final shallow hollow.

Swings and roundabouts

We may have lost a Neolithic enclosure, but we have gained another Neolithic feature in its place – the tree-throw/pit in Trench 6. Sherds which I judged on site to be later turn out to be consistently of Early Neolithic Plain Bowl pottery of the early 4th millennium BC. Always dangerous to make pronouncements based on dirty sherds! The flintworking debris from that feature is consistent with this dating and includes fragments of polished flint axes. Also, one of two leaf-shaped arrowheads comes from that trench.

The shale pendant from ploughsoil in that same trench is of course later – there is no doubt about its EBA credentials. It has now been conserved by Claire Woodhead at Hampshire Cultural Trust; consolidation was necessary to arrest the tendency towards it laminating.

Pit-circle and overlying soil

Last, but certainly not least, is the nice stratigraphic sequence in Trench 3. The two partially excavated pits of the pit-circle may be sealed under the Early Bronze Age charcoal-rich soil profile, but that does not necessarily make them significantly earlier. There is not much by way of diagnostic finds from the pit fills. However, while the pottery from the overlying soil is consistently EBA in form or fabric, the few sherds in the pits are of different fabric. Fortunately we have some animal bone for dating. The strong concretion of the fill against the side walls is a known feature of chalkland sites according to Professor Martin Bell (our mollusc/environmental specialist). Mollusc and soil micromorphological analyses will hopefully help explain the process behind the ‘pure clay’ main fill.

The survival of the charcoal-rich soil is almost certainly, as suspected from the start of fieldwork, due to it having had the protection of a mound for much of the last three and a half millennia. The spread of material we excavated must have lain under the hypothesised mound, so the latter adds another stage to the sequence. The key question is what the spread represents – domestic or ritual activity. Analysis of the charcoal (and other charred remains?) in due course might give the best clue.

Changing interpretations

Our understanding of the Forty Acre Lane site has already gone through phases. The initial identification of the cropmark on an aerial photograph as half a ring-ditch seemed to gain support from the discovery in March 2021 of a Camerton-Snowshill dagger to the east; such daggers almost always come from burials. Then it transpired that the ring-ditch was in fact one end of a long oval ditch and interpretation shifted to it being a Neolithic monument with later re-use and modification including the pit-circle and EBA activity and additions. To some extent we have now come full circle, the main element being a set of contiguous Bronze Age barrows. However, there are still important signs of a Neolithic prelude in the pit-circle and the much earlier tree-throw/pit. The main phase as now understood is no less important. Despite there being something like 20,000 round barrows and ring-ditches recorded across southern England, rather few multi-mound enclosures have been recognised and virtually none excavated in recent times. It will be interesting to consider why occasionally it was deemed necessary to parcel up a close-set group in this distinctive way with a substantial ditch.

The two main objectives of the excavation are beginning to be realised. We have characterised several of the features seen in the geophysics and most promise to be relatively well dated once analysis is complete. Secondly, while we may never know the exact context of the Early Bronze Age dagger found nearby, we are certainly establishing a broader period-specific context for it.

Stuart Needham
December 2021